Oct. 28, 2013—Washington cherry and apple grower Jon Wyss is one of dozens
of farmers, dairymen and ranchers in Washington, D.C., this week to make the case
for House action on responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture’s
significant labor challenges. For Wyss
and other farmers across the country, finding workers to care for and harvest
their crops or help care for their animals is a constant struggle.
“We’re 30 miles from the Canadian border, so it’s a long haul to get labor
up here,” Wyss said. With the labor
situation growing more dire over the past few years, many farmers in Wyss’
Okanogan County gave the current federal ag labor program, H-2A, a try, but found
“After the first six months, they can’t deal with the bureaucracy of it, so
they drop out and work with a hope and a prayer,” Wyss said.
Despite high national unemployment, most Americans are not interested in the
long, difficult hours that come with farm and ranch work. Migrant laborers, on the other hand, are
ready, willing and quite able. Many have
years of experience.
Doug Leman, executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers, is also in
the nation’s capital this week. As a
dairyman, Leman couldn’t participate in the H-2A program. Instead, he tried again and again to hire
locals to work at his dairy.
“We were constantly hiring and training, hiring and training,” said Leman,
who sold his dairy in 2010. That didn’t
work for anyone, so Leman moved to migrant workers, who he found reliable and
With Senate passage in June of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and
Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744) and the House’s early efforts on
immigration reform, Wyss said he’s more optimistic than ever about getting a
bill on the president’s desk.
The Senate legislation is considered by farmers and ranchers to be a
balanced immigration reform package that includes fair and workable farm labor
provisions. The House, meanwhile, is
dealing with the various aspects of immigration reform, such as labor and
border security, in a series of bills.
“We need to recognize the House’s step-by-step approach and work with it,”
Wyss said. “Without a House bill, we
can’t get to conference.”
No matter how it’s done, Wyss said the ag labor provisions of any reform
bill should tackle three key areas: providing an adequate labor supply,
offering at-will and contract options for farm workers, establishing a stable
wage rate and addressing undocumented migrant workers.
Leman, too, focused on the need for Congress to do something about the
workers who are here now. He also said
lawmakers should move toward allowing migrant workers to stay in the country
for an extended period of time, after which they could return to their home
To a large extent, the Senate legislation meets Wyss’ and Leman’s
criteria. The Farm Bureau-supported bill
includes a Blue Card program for current experienced farm workers and a new
agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs. These provisions are
intended to ensure producers can keep their experienced but undocumented
workers and will replace the current H-2A guest worker program with a program
with more flexibility. The measure also provides increased surveillance of
high-risk areas along our borders.
Farmers and ranchers are not alone in their efforts this week to urge
Congress to move immigration reform legislation forward this year. They are joined by other business owners,
faith leaders, law enforcement officials and conservatives as part of a loose
coalition known as Americans for Reform.